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10 Brilliant Real Heists As Dramatic As The Movies

Alan Boyle

The perfect crime is a Hollywood staple. We love watching people commit large-scale theft, so long as they’re really clever about it. These sorts of capers aren’t just found in film, however. Whether it’s an astonishingly elaborate scheme pulled off with perfect precision or a plan audaciously exploiting the system in the simplest way possible, the following crimes all have the entertaining touch of heist magic.

10Andre Stander

Andre Stander was a detective prodigy. He finished at the top of his class and became a captain by age 31. As the head of the Criminal Investigation Department in Kempton Park, South Africa, he knew a lot about robberies. That proved extremely useful when he decided to become a bank robber in 1977.

Stander was a master of disguise. He would rob a bank on his lunch break then return in the afternoon to investigate the crime without being recognized by any of the witnesses. He robbed 30 banks in three years and would likely have continued to get away with it if he hadn’t tried while drunk to recruit a colleague from the Bureau of State Security. His friend notified a senior officer, and they staked out Stander to catch him in the act.

In 1980, Stander went to prison, and that’s where his bank robbing career really took off. He met two other bank robbers there, and the three men plotted an escape. Stander and his accomplices overpowered their guards during a trip to a physiotherapist and fled. They became the Stander gang, and they robbed banks like it was an Olympic event. In two months, the men robbed 20 banks, including four in a single day, making five times the money Stander had made in his original three years.

The gang would stroll into a bank confidently and calmly and pick out the most vulnerable cashier—almost always a woman. They would approach her and order her to fill a bag with cash, and then they’d walk out before anyone else in the bank was aware a robbery had even taken place. On one occasion, the security guard held the door open for them as they left. Armed police were stationed outside banks, but the gang changed disguises and just walked past the police with their bags of cash. They were gone before the alarm could be raised.

The gang lived a life of luxury. They had multiple houses with servants and sports cars, and they dined out every day. They also hired many prostitutes, which turned out to be their downfall when one of the girls recognized and reported the men.

On January 30, 1984, police stormed one of the gang’s safe houses. Stander himself wasn’t there—he’d traveled to Florida for a new life using a forged Australian passport. A used car dealer had read about the gang in a newspaper and notified police when Stander turned up to have a Mustang repainted. Stander was shot and killed while trying to wrestle a shotgun from one of the officers sent to arrest him.

9The Great Brink’s Robbery

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Photo credit: GeorgHH/Wikimedia

The security company Brink’s has been the victim of some of the most famous heists in history, and you can find three already on Listverse. The Great Brink’s Robbery of 1950 was the first to become a sensation. It’s been called perfect, fabulous, and “the crime of the century.”

On January 17 of that year, a group of men walked into the Brink’s Armored Car depot in Boston and left 30 minutes later with $2.7 million in cash, checks, and securities. It was the biggest heist in US history at the time.

The gang behind the theft had staked out the depot for 18 months, aborting six attempts in the six weeks leading up to the robbery in search of the perfect opportunity. The robbers, wearing Halloween masks and navy chauffeurs’ uniforms, passed through at least three locked doors to reach the second floor where the crime took place. They bound five employees at gunpoint but hardly spoke.

The FBI followed thousands of leads, all of which resulted in dead ends. The truck used by the robbers had been stolen from a Ford dealer two months before the robbery and was found cut up and smashed two months afterward. In the end, It wasn’t any attempt by law enforcement that solved the case—it was a group schism.

One of the robbers, Specs O’Keefe, went to prison for an unrelated charge. He left his share of the money with another member of the gang but made it clear that he was willing to talk if they cut him out. The other robbers panicked and sent a hit man to kill O’Keefe. O’Keefe was shot—but he survived. This was enough to push him over the edge, and he cut a deal with authorities and revealed all.

The robbers came astonishingly close to getting away with the crime—they were indicted just four days before the statute of limitations for the robbery was due to pass. Despite the guilty parties being found, only around half the cash has ever been recovered

8The Great Pearl Robbery

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In 1913, a jeweler sent the the world’s most valuable pearl necklace from Paris to London—by regular mail. Normal post was seen as safer than a courier for transporting valuables, as they were mixed in with thousands of other items and almost impossible for a thief to target.

The package appeared to arrive safely, its three seals intact. Yet when it was opened, the necklace was gone. During transit, a thief had replaced the pearls with sugar cubes of the exact same weight as the jewelry, resealed the package, and sent it on.

The New York Times reported the necklace’s value at $650,000—around $15 million today. The crime was executed perfectly, and only the robbers’ attempt to sell the necklace got them caught. They were lured to a meeting with a potential buyer, who was actually an undercover police officer.

The four men behind the crime were led by noted jewel thief Joseph Grizzard, described as a likable version of Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty. The lead detective on the case later visited Grizzard in prison and argued for his early release. The full details of how the crime was carried out were never revealed, but it involved bribing at least two postal workers with $1,000—more than the average yearly salary at the time—and a total budget of $12,000.

Undoubtedly the winner in the whole thing was a piano maker named Augustus Horne. He noticed a small bag in the gutter one day in London and picked it up, believing it to contain marbles. He gave one to a homeless man then tried to trade some for a pint of beer. No one wanted any, but a barman encouraged him to go to the police. Horne had inadvertently discovered 58 of the pearls and ended up receiving a reward of £10,000.

7The Trust Company Securities Theft

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When $590,000 in securities vanished from the United States Trust Company in New York in 1934, the New York Times reported that the theft occurred “under circumstances which convinced police that they had not been stolen.” The police put it down to an accident and assumed the notes had been misplaced, even though they’d gone missing 10 minutes after being delivered, in full view of 12 people.

The FBI realized they had a criminal on their hands when another $1.5 million went missing the following month in the Manhattan company’s offices. Once again, the theft occurred in a broker’s office “under circumstances that ordinarily would seem to bar any possibility of theft.” The hunt for the phantom thief was on.

The investigation that followed was massive and involved the police forces of three countries. The first recovery of $310,000 in bonds occurred after federal agents pursued thieves down the Atlantic coast, then from Florida to California, and then to the Bahamas. Eight men were arrested.

Another $440,000 was traced to Paris. Two bonds for $100,000 were found in a suitcase in Grand Central, and another $200,000 was found rolled up in a tin of lima beans in someone’s house. An anonymous tip delivered by a telegraph messenger boy led agents to $640,000 in a locked luggage box at a subway station. In total, 16 people were arrested in a case led by J. Edgar Hoover himself—yet the secret of how the thefts were done was never revealed.

6The Chelambra Bank Robbery

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Photo credit: Vinayaraj V.R.

The four-man gang that robbed the North Malabar Gramin Bank in Chelembra, India was able to spend plenty of time preparing for their heist. In 2007, they noticed a restaurant was available for lease, and it was located directly beneath the bank. The gang paid to rent the space and stuck up a sign saying it was under renovation and would reopen on January 8, 2008. They also bought furniture for their renovation to avoid suspicion. Sadly for hungry locals, the restaurant never opened. Instead, the robbers cut through the floor of the bank on December 30 and made off with 80 million rupees (around $1.3 million).

They cut into the bank’s strong room in the early hours of Sunday morning, so the robbery wasn’t discovered for over a day. The gang planted evidence in the restaurant that made them appear to be supporters of Naxalism, a communist guerilla movement active in India.

The thieves left numerous other false clues. A kilogram (2.2 lb) of stolen gold was abandoned in a hotel room in Hyderabad, over 700 kilometers (450 mi) away. They also made phone calls from cities all over the country to overload investigators. Police got a break by looking for something suspicious in the two million phone calls handled by the nearest cell tower during the time of the robbery. They found a secret number that the robbers had used to communicate and were able to trace the robbers to a house where they were hiding out.

By February 28, most of the treasure was recovered, and the robbers had all confessed. Three of the men were sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the fourth got five.

5The 300-Million-Yen Grab

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On December 10, 1968, four bank employees were in a car transporting 294.3 million yen to a Toshiba factory. At the time, that was worth $817,520, the equivalent of over $5 million today. As the staff were driving by Fuchu Prison in Tokyo, they were approached by a policeman on a motorcycle. The man told the employees their manager’s house had been bombed, and that there might be a bomb under the car.

The staff got out, and the police officer dropped to the ground to check underneath the vehicle. Suddenly, smoke and flames erupted from the car, and the police officer told the group to run before the engine exploded. The bank workers fled as quickly as they could, before turning to see the “policeman” driving away. A freshly used flare lay on the ground

The robber left 120 pieces of evidence behind, including the motorcycle. However, none of it was useful, and police eventually realized the random objects had been scattered on purpose to throw investigators off-course. The investigation itself was huge—170,000 officers looked into 110,000 suspects.

The statute of limitations passed in 1975 without anyone being caught, and the robber was free of civil liabilities after 20 years. He could legally sell his story and face no consequences, but no reliable claimant has ever come forward.

4The Stopwatch Gang

The all-Canadian three-man bank-robbing team known as the Stopwatch Gang were responsible for over 100 heists, with proceeds of over $15 million during the 1970s and ’80s. They earned their nickname because they used stopwatches to ensure they were never in a bank for more than two minutes. They could perform a robbery in as little 90 seconds.

They were famous for never needing to fire a shot. One of their first robberies, stealing $750,000 worth of gold bars from Ottawa Airport, was carried out by gang member Stephen Reid disguising himself as a baggage handler and simply walking out with the loot. They were caught for that crime, but when they left prison, they moved to the US and created new identities for themselves in Arizona. They told their neighbors they worked in entertainment and took regular business trips to California.

In total, they robbed over 140 banks. In true Hollywood style, it was their last big job, on which they hoped to retire, that got them caught. The gang customized a rented vehicle and spent weeks staking out and planning to steal a cash delivery at a Bank of America branch. On September 23, 1980, they took $283,000—but left a clue that led back to them. All of the gang were arrested. Stephen Reid was picked up on his way to the airport to get the plane he’d bought to leave the country and start his new life.

3The Argentinean Underground

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Photo credit: CNN

On January 13, 2006, two men walked into Banco Rio in the Argentinean town of Acassuso. They took over 20 hostages. Two hundred police officers completely surrounded the building, but the robbers didn’t seem to mind. They exchanged four hostages for pizza and pop (which they shared with the other hostages) and sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the women they’d captured. In total, they were there for seven hours, before police stormed the building—and found the men had vanished along with $8 million worth of valuables.

Police found an iron lid covering a hole in the basement, bolted from underneath. When they removed it, they were led into a tunnel, which took the thieves into the sewers and out to the local river. The thieves had left a note saying they’d “stolen money, not love,” though many of the 140 safe deposit boxes they’d taken contained items of great sentimental value.

Though the thieves were caught and put on trial, robbing banks from underground seems to have caught on. On New Year’s Eve 2010, a group of robbers dug a 30-meter (100 ft) tunnel into Banco Provincia in Buenos Aires. They even included lights and ventilation. Alarms went off, put police didn’t bother to investigate beyond checking that the doors were shut. Only days later, when the bank reopened, did anyone realize a robbery had taken place.

2The Loughton Incinerator Thefts

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The key to a brilliant plan is simplicity, as a worker at the Bank of England’s incinerator for worn-out banknotes found out in 1988. Over the course of four years, she stole £600,000 by stuffing the cash in her underwear.

A small group of employees acted as lookouts for main smuggler Christine Gibson, distracting the plant’s security guards. The notes were locked away in cages with two padlocks, black and white. Gibson only held the key for the black padlocks, but painted some of the keys white so she could remove both types without being detected. Since the notes were stolen from the secure lock-up immediately before they were thrown into fire, no one ever noticed the loss.

As with many criminals on this list, the theft itself wasn’t the undoing of Gibson’s gang. Her husband Peter drew attention when he went to a local building society to open an account, dumping a plastic bag full of rolled up notes out onto a table in front of the manager. Though plenty of people save cash, Gibson had brought in £100,000 in a carrier bag. Bank staff were suitably flabbergasted and called police. Officers raided the Gibsons’ home and unraveled the entire scheme.

Almost everyone involved in the thefts escaped criminal prosecution because witnesses were unwilling to talk to police. The lavish, unexplainable lifestyle of the low-paid staff wasn’t enough for a criminal trial. However, the Bank of England considered it enough to take civil action. They successfully sued three families for the return of the stolen cash—plus interest.

1The Art Thefts Of Stephane Breitwieser

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Photo credit: The City Review

Perhaps the most prolific art thief in history, Stephane Breitwieser stole billions of dollars’ worth of art over the course of seven years. He took pieces from 172 different museums across Europe, storing them all at his mother’s house. He didn’t do it for money; he lived on his salary as a waiter in various European cities. He just really, really liked art.

Breitwieser‘s plan was simple. He visited museums and galleries with poor security. Breitwieser’s girlfriend acted as a lookout, and he removed items from their displays. He’d then hide them under his coat and walk out the front door.

He was eventually caught in 2001 trying to steal a 400-year-old bugle. Swiss police recognized him because he was targeting the museum for the second time. He’d already served eight months in the country for trying to steal a piece in 1998. Breitwieser was jailed and spent 26 months in prison.

The worst part of the story comes from the man’s mother. Mireille Breitwieser destroyed 60 items worth $1.4 billion when her son was arrested. She claimed to have been angry with him, but police believe she was trying to get rid of evidence.

When he got out of prison, Breitwieser decided he was finally ready to profit from his crimes: He published an autobiography.

Alan is concerned about how tempted he was while writing this to take up bank robbery as a career.